Engaging Youngistan: Shashi Tharoor’s letter to first-time voters
(Dr. Shashi Tharoor, MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the Union Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)
The 2014 elections are a critical juncture in the history of our nation. They are being described as a ‘youthquake’, with an unprecedented share of first-time voters coming forward to exercise their democratic right. An estimated 150 million young Indians like you will cast their votes this year, and there are about 90,000 new voters in every constituency in our country (over a lakh in Thiruvananthapuram).
The average age of our population is a young 28, and half our countrymen are below the age of 25, while 66% are under 35! In a decade’s time, when China reaches an average age well above 40, India’s people will remain young at 29. Even as the workforce in China and the West shrinks, our human resources in India are developing at a staggering rate that will leave us with a substantial edge over the rest of the world. The India of tomorrow is your India, and this is your century.
These elections, then, are not merely about casting votes. They are your way of shaping our nation’s future, and yours. Voting is a way of involving yourself in the decisions that matter: decisions about professional opportunities in our country, the investment climate we build, the way in which revenues are raised and spent, and the policies that will affect your own advancement.
Over the last few years, in a welcome development, Indian youth have increasingly been getting involved in politics. Innovative UPA Government policies, from the strengthening of Panchayati Raj institutions to establishing the effective Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme as well as promulgating the revolutionary Right to Information (RTI) Act, have created conducive ground for mass mobilisation and awareness.
Change is in the air, and many youth have demonstrated this through your backing of the Jan Lokpal Bill, the massive outpouring of support for the Delhi rape victim known as Nirbhaya, and by demonstrations to strike down Section 377, to name only a few examples.
There is no doubt that young Indians are taking a greater interest in the running of our country and reshaping the way we look at government and how government looks at us.
But when you cast your vote in 2014, I appeal to you also to vote for an Idea of India, to borrow Tagore’s famous phrase. Our nation is at a crossroads where the decisions of its youth will determine India’s future course and destiny. The India envisioned by our founding fathers was a land of certain key values, the most important of which was our abiding pluralism. This has in fact been an ancient tradition; India is the country where St Thomas brought Christianity long before it reached Europe.
It is the land where Jews sought refuge after the destruction of their First Temple by the Babylonians. When the Zoroastrians fled persecution in Iran, it was to India that they came. Alexander’s Greek successors were absorbed into our population, as were the Mughals, Arab traders, Mongol and Scythian warriors, and others of innumerable ethnicities, denominations and faiths. Practically all the religions of the world co-existed in India peacefully for centuries until the colonial era politics of “divide and rule” exacerbated minor schisms into major political factors. Upon gaining Independence, however, our founding fathers sought to cast aside these artificial, imposed divisions to restore to India her original character; one of pluralism, diversity, and equal freedom.
In recent years, however, an ugly ideology has taken root among certain sections that visualizes India through the narrow parameters of religious identity.
No matter what its varied pretensions otherwise, it remains at its core an intolerant strand of thought, which wants to reinvent India in an ugly and bigoted form - a step that can only lead to calamity.
Divisive characters of every variety are welcomed into this intellectual and political fold, which utilizes the freedoms of our society to propagate its own regressive agenda.
Sustaining pluralism is never easy, but this new ideology takes advantage of our youth’s enthusiasm and eagerness for political and economic change, by concealing its principal motives under a camouflage of ‘progress’. It promises development but it is important to note that this is development for a privileged few only.
Gay community to Narendra Modi: You will not get our vote
It’s the first election in India where the rights of sexual minorities are a political issue. Three major political parties – the Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) – have pledged to decriminalise consensual same-sex relations if elected, suggesting the rising societal support for the rights of sexual minorities could find political resonance.
The Congress manifesto also promises protection for the rights of transgenders, who have only just found inclusion in the country’s electoral process this year, with the “other” gender option being introduced to voter ID cards. While neither queer support groups nor the parties themselves have official numbers on the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) demographic in various constituencies, even symbolic support at this stage is highly encouraging, say members of the queer community.
The AAP manifesto is yet to be released, but the party has been actively engaged in dialogues with the LGBTQ community regarding the sensitisation of its members on issues of gender, most recently at a workshop moderated by queer filmmaker and AAP member, Onir. “It is important for us not to be seen as a minority, but as part of a mainstream conversation about sexual autonomy,” he said.
The Bharatiya Janata Party is yet to release their poll manifesto, but party President Rajnath Singh has in the past described homosexuality as “unnatural” and stated his support for Article 377, the legal provision that criminalises a broad range of sexual acts, including homosexual intercourse between consenting adults.
The Congress’ apparent support for same-sex relations comes at a time when the Indian LGBTQ community has faced its most serious setback yet. In December 2013, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court upheld Section 377, rejected the Delhi High Court judgment in favour of decriminalisation.
Shortly after, the apex court dismissed a fresh petition by the Naz Foundation to review its own judgment – shutting down any further legal conversations on the rights of what it decreed a “miniscule minority”.
While petitioner Naz Foundation has faced criticism in the past for choosing the legal route to contest section 377, instead of lobbying for change in the legislature, it appears that the Supreme Court’s conservative ruling has ironically catalyzed a strong political support base for queer rights.
“Despite marginalisation, the young, queer voter has a new and strong identity,” said gender rights activist Gautam Bhan. “This is a generation that has discovered its voice in the five years since the Delhi High Court’s judgment. They want progress, but not at the cost of personal freedoms.”
On social media and in real life, the LGBTQ community has been discussing if India has a “queer vote”, and whom they should vote for anyway. “The marginalised may remain hidden,” said writer and queer activist Lesley Esteves, “but we do realise that we are all being threatened by a common enemy.” Esteves says the decision of the three parties to support of gay rights is a “smart political move”.
Even if it does not translate into votes, it does show that all three are willing to “stick their necks out” against the the Supreme Court judgment and demonstrate their opposition to the BJP’s position on queer rights. “Now more than ever,” she said, “it has become clear who not to vote for.”
Since December 2012, and the nationwide protests that followed the rape and murder of a 23-year-old female in New Delhi, it has been evident that questions of gender and sexual autonomy will be pivotal to the country’s upcoming general elections.
While parties across the board have addressed the question of women’s security, only the Congress, AAP and CPI (ML) realise that questions of gender and sexuality are an essential way to address and the politics of social conservatism, and reach out to the young urban voter. “Even if we had won the legal battle, social acceptance might have taken another couple of decades for same-sex partners,” said equal rights activist Harish Iyer. “I think a few political parties have definitely accelerated that process now.”
While frequent users of Grindr, a mobile dating app for gay men, were recently surprised to find automatically generated BJP advertisements between searches for prospective partners, the party’s refusal to speak on Section 377, particularly in light of the AAP and Congress’ pledge for decriminalisation, is being described as an “active silence”.
"There are still people of privilege that continue to identify as homosexual and support the BJP,” said historian Mario da Penha, "but they are largely enamoured by the muscularity of Hindutva, or the veneer of order and development that Modi promises.”
The arrest of Tehsin Akhtar alias Monu has come as a major jolt to the homegrown terror outfit Indian Mujahideen (IM) as it has virtually crippled with its main leaders in India in police net. Investigators say there isn’t a single known face in the country capable of executing IM operations now.
"The India operations by known leaders who could motivate new members have pretty much wound up with Abdus Subhan Qureshi alias Tauqeer, a SIMI ideologue, left as the only known face. Tauqeer, however, is not involved in operations of IM and only motivates and brainwashes new recruits," said an officer.
Another important factor which investigators say has crippled IM is that the outfit has been left without a trained ‘bomb-maker’ now. “Waqas, Tehsin, Yasin and Assadullah were only persons who could make perfect IEDs. They all are in the custody of Indian agencies,” said a senior officer.
Since its inception, Yasin Bhatkal had been managing all tasks single-handedly and IM was able to carry out strikes even though more than 60 members of the group were arrested. Tehsin had taken over since his arrest last year.
So who will lead the group now? The investigators believe one of the six-seven founding members of IM who are based in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan may be sent to India to take over.
"After Yasin Bhatkal, Monu was the man Friday not just for Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal but also for several other members of IM who are presently based across the border," says DCP Sanjeev Yadav in a statement.
At present, the known handlers based abroad are Doctor Shahnawaz Alam, Bada Sajid, Khalid, Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal, Amir Reza Khan and Mirza Shahdab Baig. Among these men, Shahnawaz, who juggles between Middle-East and Pakistan since the Batla house encounter, is the prime contender to take over,” says an officer.
A native of Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, Shahnawaz is familiar with various places in the country. It was only after the Batla encounter that Shahnawaz, who was the top leader of the group’s Azamgarh module, crossed over to Nepal with other IM men and procured forged Nepali passports. “He took a flight to Sharjah, where he regrouped with other IM leaders - Amir Reza Khan, Iqbal Bhatkal and his younger brother Riyaz. Since then, he was among the top three handlers of these terrorists being readied in India,” said an officer.
The major fear among the Indian security agencies is that apart from Riyaz and Iqbal Bhatkal, rest of the group’s members have inclined towards the Taliban which believes in Fidayeen attacks. “If any one apart from these two take over, they may try to carry out such attacks. We are trying to develop intelligence in this connection,” said an officer.
Roy’s new essay about BR Ambedkar is being assailed by some Dalit radicals. They are doing him a disservice.
As blogs and social media took India by the storm in the mid-2000s, their big target was Big Media. For the first time, journalists and editors got a taste of their own medicine. They began to hear criticism of their work on a minute-by-minute basis: some fair and some unfair, some in long prose and some in nasty one-liners. They did not take to it nicely. They complained about the language used by bloggers and social media enthusiasts, they went on and on about the abuse. One often heard the grouse, “On the internet, anyone can say anything!”
It was funny that they complained about almost everyone acquiring the ability to say anything, a transformation of public discourse they should have actually welcomed. I wondered at the irony of journalists seeming to be unsure about free speech and expression. Matters became serious after 2011, when their insecurities about social media fed into the discussion about Kapil Sibal’s attempts to ‘regulate’ online speech, which led to such events as cartoonists being jailed.
At that moment, I felt grateful to Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. When India’s Constituent Assembly was debating free speech, it was proposed that there be a special clause to ensure press freedom. But Dr Ambedkar, chairperson of the drafting committee of the Constitution, intervened to say that every Indian should have the right to free speech, and nobody should be more equal in this regard. Had it not been for that intervention, I thought, the celebrity faces of Indian journalism would have been using the law to muzzle voices online.
Had Ambedkar been alive today, he would have been shocked to find that some Dalit radical intellectuals are arguing that they are more equal than others when it comes to reading Ambedkar.
The most famous text from Ambedkar’s collected volumes is called “The Annihilation of Caste”, a long essay that is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Indian society. It is freely available on the internet. Among other places, the Columbia University website is a good place to read it.
This month, Delhi-based Navayana Publishers has published The Annihilation of Caste with detailed new annotations and a long introduction by Arundhati Roy. Titled The Doctor and the Saint, Roy’s introduction enters the Gandhi vs. Ambedkar debate, which is fitting because The Annihilation of Caste renewed the debate between the two in 1936. Gandhi responded to The Annihilation of Caste in the 15 August 1936 issue of The Harijan, and Ambedkar subsequently appended his ‘Reply to the Mahatma’ as part of the original text.
Navayana’s Siriyavan Anand has obtained blurbs by eminent academics that praise his annotations more than Roy’s introduction, even as it is the latter that has been presented as the book’s USP in the media. Caravan magazine carried an excerpt as its cover story and Outlook magazine carried another excerpt along with an interview of Roy.
Ambedkar wrote The Annihilation of Caste as a speech on the invitation of an anti-caste group, the Jat-Pat Todak Mandal of Lahore. The group found the text of the speech offensive, particularly the parts where he criticised Hindu sacred texts such as the Vedas and said that this would be his last address as a Hindu. As a result, it decided to cancel the event. Ambedkar then printed 1,500 copies of the speech himself and distributed them. Ambedkar was being prevented from letting the world hear what he had to say about annihilating caste but he did not allow himself to be censored.
You would think, therefore, that Dalit intellectuals would only be happy that Arundhati Roy is engaging with that text, that leading English language magazines are telling the world about it, that we need to read Ambedkar, and explaining why.
Strangely, some Dalit radicals and intellectuals have a problem with Arundhati Roy reading, learning from and expounding about Ambedkar. On March 9, Roy was to be in Hyderabad to launch the book. But the event was cancelled because the publisher feared protests from Dalit radicals who have been upset about the book. The Hindu quoted some of them:
“The book is extremely important for Dalits and it not right to add footnotes to the book. We feel Arundhati Roy has diluted Ambedkar’s writing and there is every chance that the book might be misinterpreted. Roy has always been a Maoist sympathiser and has never been vocal on Dalit atrocities. So with that understanding, how can she write a foreword for the book?” asked J. Srinivas, state co-convenor for the Dalit Shakti programme, and a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Hyderabad.
Renowned author and lawyer Bojja Tarakam, who will be the guest at the event, also plans to raise objections regarding the content. “Most of the preface is about Gandhi, rather than Ambedkar. What is the need to write so much about him?” Mr. Tarakam said. However, he opposed any kind of curbs on the release of the book and felt it should be released in order to facilitate healthy discussion on the subject.
In other words, Dalit intellectuals think it is their right, by virtue of their caste, to decide whether a Maoist sympathiser can write on Ambedkar; whether one can write on the Ambedkar debate with Gandhi; or whether one is allowed to write more words in criticism of Gandhi than in praise of Ambedkar. The Annihilation of Caste was written for the upper castes, meant to be addressed to them.
Conversations such as the ones between Ambedkar and Gandhi seem no longer possible, even between those on the same side as Ambedkar. In a pithy statement announcing the cancellation of the Hyderabad events, Navayana said, “There have been some difficulties in the distribution of the book and it is not yet available, especially in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai etc. Meanwhile acrimonious debates have been taking place without many people getting a chance to read it. The launch is therefore postponed till such a time as the book is widely available, and a more informed conversation can take place.”
Translation: please read the book before you dismiss it.
Navayana’s blurb for the book reads, “Roy breathes new life into Ambedkar’s anti-caste utopia, and says that without a Dalit revolution, there cannot be any other in India.” Writing on the Ambedkarite blog Round Table India, Dalit activist Anoop Kumar understands the word utopia to be meant in a negative sense, though it was not. Kumar tells the powerful story of a village where just last year, the erection of a statue of 15th century social reformer and bhakti poet Sant Ravidas n Bihar’s Rohtas district led to violence. Incensed by the assertion over public space with the Sant Ravidas statue, Rajputs attacked Dalits, killing one and injuring 54. Kumar’s point in recalling the incident as a response to Arundhati Roy is to suggest that upper caste intellectuals like Roy are preventing Dalit intellectuals like him from asserting themselves in the sphere of ideas. Ironically, by writing about Ambedkar, she is seeking to expand that sphere.
The Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Bill, 2014 was adopted by voice vote along with several official amendments, with main opposition BJP coming on board.
Moving the bill for consideration and passage, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde said the Centre will give special financial package to Seemandhra, residual part of Andhra Pradesh, to address the grievances of the people of that region.
A number of amendments moved by AIMIM member Asaduddin Owaisi and Trinamool Congress member Sougata Roy were negated.
No telecast of proceedings by LS
Significantly, there was no live telecast by Lok Sabha TV for 90 minutes during clause by clause consideration of the bill before its passage.
Many members protested the way the bill was passed in the din, saying it was against the democratic norms and a “black day” in the country’s democracy.
The Bill was passed after a very brief discussion in which only Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj and minister Jaipal Reddy, a pro-Telangana leader from Andhra Pradesh, spoke.
The bill was introduced in the House on February 13 amid unprecedented scenes marked by fisticuffs, pepper spraying and breaking of House articles. 16 MPs belonging to Seemandhra region were suspended and they could not attend the House today.
BJP supported Telangana creation
Swaraj, who spoke as per an understanding with the government, said her party supports the creation of Telangana but attacked the way it was being done.
“I and my party support the Bill…Telangana should be formed…We rise to prove our credibility and to see wishes of youth of Telangana are fulfilled,” Swaraj said amid vociferous protest by members from CPI(M), Samajwadi Party and Trinamool Congress in the Well.
Charging Congress with mishandling the issue of Telangana, she recalled that the BJP-led NDA had created three states during its tenure at the Centre without any disruption in Parliament or in any region.
Accusing Congress of delaying the process of Telangana formation, the Leader of the Opposition said though the ruling party had promised Telangana way back in May 2004, it brought it at the fag end of the 15th Lok Sabha.
“You have been in power in the last ten years, but you did nothing. You just sat over it”, she told Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
India Introspect:They called me Gurkha, Chinese, chinki. I lived through hell: Danny Denzongpa..
Last week, Nido Taniam, a 19-year-old student from Arunachal Pradesh, was killed in an alleged racial attack in Delhi.
Soon after, two Manipuri girls were beaten up by goons in Delhi.
Politicians like Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi were quick to condemn the incidents.
The latter even spoke of there being “only one India” and saying that the country “belongs to all of us”.
With racial abuse now in the spotlight, stars who hail from the north-eastern states of India share their own experiences.
I lived through hell: Danny Denzongpa
The veteran actor believes that lack of geographical and cultural knowledge are the prime reasons behind racial discrimination.
"To feel alienated in your own land is the saddest thing,” he had said, reminiscing about his student days at the Film and Television Institute of India during the Indo-China war in 1962.
"That was the worst time for me.I dreaded stepping out of the campus because people would stare, and jibes like Gurkha, Chinese, Nepalese and chinki were openly thrown at me. I lived through hell,” he added.
But Denzongpa didn’t accept the rejection. He fought it to make his place in Bollywood too. “I knew I was different, but I was going to convert that into an advantage. Once you become a brand, the world wants you — including the same people who rejected you,” he said.
(In an interview to HT Café in June 2012)
Let’s not pretend we’re unaware: Meiyang Chang
Let’s not pretend that we are unaware of the fact that discrimination permeates the very moral fabric of our society on the basis on caste, creed, colour, looks and social standing.
The unfortunate incident in Delhi is a mirror of what happens to members of every community on an everyday basis. We need to be more accepting and less judgmental. One can’t blame another for the sins they themselves commit.
I’ve been teased: Papon
"I have never personally faced racism, but yes, I’ve been teased in a fun way for my accent and looks. However, I don’t know why people are like that. We’re a vast country and there will be differences. I hope the situation improves slowly. There are jokes against south Indians, north Indians and east Indians, but people should start respecting each other. We must be open to all cultures because this country is the biggest collection of them. We should be proud of our versatility and not make fun of it.”
Lots of pain behind the laughter: Jahnu Barua
"I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve faced racism. I’ve had people ask me for my passport and address me as ‘chinki’. Initially, I’d get angry, but later I learned to live with it.
There are people who are mindlessly ignorant and have no human character. I used to protest earlier, but today, I laugh at the people who treated me that way. There’s a lot of pain behind this laughter.”
I detest the mindset of people who can’t change the way they think: Mary Kom
“Most of India is ignorant about the north east. It’s the attitude that’s wrong. I was never taken seriously due to my looks. I had to suffer my share of derogatory ‘Chinki’ remarks, especially in big cities. I speak Hindi, so I always understand what they say. But now, I hope for a new beginning…I hope I can be the change.
The people of the north east are well-qualified and well-brought-up Indians. They are employed in big cities as waiters and shop assistants. I respect the dignity of labour, but I detest the mindset of the people who cannot change the way they think about us. Treat us with warmth, respect and love. Then, there won’t be simmering anger and feelings of alienation in your own land.”
(In an interview to HT Café in August 2012)
To segregate them is criminal: Kalpana Lajmi
The film-maker is completely shocked by the news. “There is definitely an undercurrent of violence and non-acceptance towards north-eastern students. Every member of the Central as well as State
Governments should do something about this. It’s highly unfair to stereotype them and call them by vulgar names because they look different. To segregate them is criminal,” she says, adding, “In 2014, for the police to pick up a young boy and put him back in the same spot, I don’t know what kind of cruelty that is. There is no proper search done regarding who the murderers are. Like all other cases, this too will close down soon and be forgotten.”
Negotiators for the Pakistani Taliban said on Tuesday that government representatives had refused to show up for planned peace talks, citing confusion over the militants’ team.
The two sides had been due to gather in Islamabad at 2:00 pm to chart a “roadmap” for talks, amid a surge in militant violence and scepticism about the chances of reaching a negotiated peace.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif caused surprise last week by announcing a team to begin dialogue with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which has been waging a violent insurgency since 2007.
Many observers had been anticipating a military offensive against TTP strongholds in Pakistan’s tribal areas, following a bloody start to the year. More than 110 people were killed in militant attacks in January, many of them military personnel.
The head of the TTP’s talks committee, hardline cleric Maulana Sami-ul-Haq, said he was disappointed the government team had failed to show up as agreed.
"I received a phone call from Irfan Siddiqui who said confusion still persisted because the composition of the Taliban committee has changed from five to three," Haq said. Siddiqui is leading the government negotiators.
"Citing this reason, he said the government committee could not come."
AFP were unable to reach the government for an immediate comment.
Washington has long pressured Pakistan to take action against militants using tribal areas as a base to attack NATO troops across the border in Afghanistan.
Talk of a full offensive in North Waziristan rose last month when the air force bombarded suspected Taliban hideouts following two major attacks on military targets.
But no operation was launched and critics accused Sharif’s government of dithering in response to the resurgent violence.
Even before Tuesday’s abortive start, media held out scant hope for the talks.
The TTP has said in the past that it opposes democracy and wants Islamic sharia law imposed throughout Pakistan, while the government has stressed the country’s constitution must remain paramount.
English-language daily The Nation predicted the “peace talks balloon will burst soon enough”.
"The ambiguity and confusion still exists because the political leadership has been extremely hesitant towards taking a clear stand and calling a spade a spade for a change," it said in an editorial on Tuesday.
The News predicted the process would be “long and excruciating… since neither committee contains anyone with the authority to make decisions”.
The government team consists of senior journalists Siddiqui and Rahimullah Yusufzai, former diplomat Rustam Shah Mohmand and retired major Mohammad Aamir, formerly of the Inter Services Intelligence agency.
The Taliban initially named five negotiators: Haq, Maulana Abdul Aziz, who is the chief cleric of Islamabad’s Red Mosque, Professor Ibrahim Khan of religious party Jamaat-e-Islami, Mufti Kifayatullah of the JUI-F religious party and cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan.
But Imran Khan declined the offer and Kifayatullah’s party withdrew Kifayatullah on Monday, complaining they had not been properly consulted over the talks.
Haq urged the government to come to the negotiating table.
"We once again invite the government committee to come and talk to us. We will not make anything a point of prestige," he told reporters.
"We believe that the pressure is now growing on the Prime Minister. He makes sincere offers but later comes under US pressure."
Haq told AFP on Monday that the TTP had so far made no formal demands for the talks.
In the past the militants have called for their prisoners to be released and for Pakistani troops to be pulled out of the seven tribal areas along the Afghan border.
The court today rejected review petitions filed by the Centre and gay rights activists, who said they were “extremely disappointed” but would file another petition soon.
The Supreme Court today said that it will not review its controversial order that made gay sex criminal. The December verdict had drawn sharp criticism internationally for failing to protect fundamental individual rights.
The top court had stated that only parliament could change the law, by deleting Section 377- a colonial-era statute of the Indian Penal Code which bans sex “against the order of nature”- is constitutionally valid.
The Centre and gay rights activists had appealed against the Supreme Court’s decision. But judges today said they saw no reason to interfere with the order.
Now, the union government has two options: it can either file a curative petition in the Supreme Court, or it can try to amend the law in Parliament.
A curative petition, the final appeal in the legal process, is heard by the Supreme Court’s senior-most judges including the Chief Justice of the country.
Amending the law in parliament will be tough for the government. The main opposition party, the BJP, has said it backs Article 377.
The next parliament session, starting February 5, lasts 11 days, and is the last time Parliament will meet before the national election, due by May.
In 2009, the Delhi High Court exempted gay sex between consenting adults from the ban imposed by Section 377. That verdict was the result of a case brought by the Naz Foundation, a sexual rights organization, which fought a legal battle for almost a decade.
Different religious groups appealed against the Delhi High Court’s decision in the Supreme Court, which ruled in their favour.
The Supreme Court bench, headed by G.S. Singhvi on his last day before retirement, found the High Court had overstepped its authority and that the law passed by the British in 1860 does not violate the Constitution.
Several hundred gay activists had protested the verdict in Delhi, waving rainbow flags and chanting slogans for freedom.
.India on Monday declared itself a polio-free country for the third consecutive year without a single new case of the disease and braced itself for the March-end review by WHO to declare the entire south-east Asia region polio free.
"It is a matter of pride for the nation that not a single case of polio has been detected in the three years. This is one of India’s monumental and biggest milestone achieved, through a massive and sustained immunization programme," health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad said.
"India accounted for half of all the cases of polio reported globally in 2009. Within four and half years, we have been able to eradicate the crippling disease," Azad said adding that 36 months ago the last case was reported on January 13, 2011 when a two-year-old girl suffered polio paralysis in Howrah district of West Bengal. 741 cases were reported in 2009, 42 in 2010 and one case in 2011.
Historically, India has been the largest endemic reservoir of polio in the world with between 50,000 to 100,000 paralytic polio cases occurring each year between 1978 and 1995. It has also been one of the main sources of polio importation for other countries.
Speaking about this important milestone for the country, WHO Representative to India, Dr Nata Menabde, said, “This landmark is a great credit to the strong commitment and leadership of the Government of India.”
"Credit also goes to the government’s strong partnership with WHO, Rotary and UNICEF as also the millions of frontline workers - the vaccinators, social mobilizers and community and health workers - who continue to implement innovative strategies to rid India of polio," she added.
Three years of being polio free is a notable milestone for the country as a whole, but the success of the immunization and awareness campaign has had a wider impact - with this achievement, it is hoped that soon the entire South-East Asia Region can be considered certifiably free from polio. A commission of experts will meet at the World Health Organization offices at the end of March to analyze the data and determine the polio status for the Region.
An official function to celebrate the occasion will he held on 11 February in which President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj and WHO Director General Margaret Chan along with international NGOs will be present.
On the issue of risks of infection from neighbouring countries, Azad said “right from the beginning, we have vaccinating the children coming from Pakistan when they would cross the border. There are some other neighbouring countries from where people come here by air and we have already issued advisories a few months back that they will not be allowed to come unless they have been vaccinated in their respective countries.
He further said his next focus is going to on non-communicable dieses, that is cancer, diabetes and cardio-vascular diseases.
Polio or infantile paralysis, is a viral, infectious disease which spread from person to person, primarily via the fecal-oral route. Polio, which usually infects children under the age of five, can be prevented by vaccine and has been eliminated in most countries.
The disease still causes paralysis and death in some parts of the world including Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Bhajan Singh, 62, remembers the time curious villagers turned up to see a borewell his father Gopal Singh had dug up. The year was 1969 and it was the first time Sumrasar village, near Bhuj in
Kutch district, had had a borewell. Few had ever seen it work, as they depended entirely on rainwater for the barely one crop they harvested a year.
Originally from Pakistan, Gopal Singh had migrated to Amritsar during Partition. He moved to Kutch, then a barren, deserted area, 400 km from Ahmedabad and the last district of Gujarat on the Indo-Pak border, four years after then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri appealed to countrymen to settle there. Shastri issued the appeal during the India-Pakistan war of 1965, arguing that populating the border region would be strategically advantageous for India, deterring intrusion from the other side. On the PM’s call, a large group of migrants poured in, and between 1965 and 1984, the Gujarat government allotted land officially to 550 people of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan in the district. Of them, 390 were Sikhs. They settled across the district, not very far from the local villages, in the middle of their farms. Gopal Singh was part of the group that came from Punjab.
Nearly 45 years later, this part of Kutch, which continues to receive Sikh migrants, stands out from the rest of the district. On the strength of the legendary Sikh entrepreneurship, a green pasture rests there now, referred to as “mini Punjab”.
A tremor went down this region then in 2010, when the Kutch District Collector sent them a notice that their plots were being frozen as they were outsiders and couldn’t own farm land in the state, nor transfer it. Essentially, it meant they couldn’t sell or purchase land any more, or get bank loans for agricultural processes, and that they could be evicted anytime.
Bhajan Singh says his father couldn’t take the shock. “The saddest part of our story is that after years of turning barren land fertile, it has been frozen. My father, who retired from the Army after fighting wars with Pakistan, was alive till 2010 when the district collector’s notice came. It hurt him badly. A year later, he died.”
Last month, after pressure brought on by the protesting farmers, and because of the compulsions of the BJP to keep ally Akali Dal in good humour, the Narendra Modi government defreezed land records of 52 farmers. Bhajan Singh’s name was not on the list. A minister has now promised that the case of those who migrated to Kutch between 1965 and 1984 would be given consideration.
Singh owns about 30 acres of land in Sumrasar, and is well known locally for his efforts to save wild animals. His father Gopal Singh was initially allotted land near Khavda village, which is close to the Pakistan border, but as the land there was not good for agriculture, he sold it a decade later and shifted to Sumrasar.
"There was no issue raised by the government then," Bhajan points out. It was on October 22, 2010, that then district collector M Thennarasan sent notices freezing land of 784 individuals in Kutch, of whom 245 are originally from Punjab and Haryana. The rest are from Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
The notice, labelled ‘Freezing the agriculture accounts of outsiders of Gujarat state’, stated “it is instructed not to do mutation on the basis of 7/12 certificate of farmer of registered documents until the next instruction” under the Bombay Tenancy and Agricultural Land Act, 1948.
While all the 784 face eviction, a group of Sikh farmers took up the fight, approaching the regional officer, who rejected their case. In 2011, the matter reached the Gujarat High Court. When a larger bench of justices presided over by the chief justice ordered in favour of the applicants, the state government went to the Supreme Court.
According to the farmers, the interpretation of the state government that an outsider or a farmer owning land in another state can’t buy land in Gujarat is wrong, and that it was violative of the fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution.
"The state government is also trying to juggle the figures of people affected. This is not just about 800 to 900 people. In fact, the government has increased the number. The issue is whether a non-Gujarati can buy land in Gujarat or not. There were no such rules till today. The government has cited a circular issued in 1973 that says only Gujaratis can buy land. But this is not an amendment or even a notification, just a circular," says Himmat Singh Shergil, an advocate who is representing the farmers in the Supreme Court.
In their affidavits, the Sikh farmers have stated that Kutch has a complex history. After Partition, a decision was taken to build a major port in Kutch, today known as the Kandla port. With this port came Gandhidham, which would go on to become a refugee camp housing many people from Pakistan over the years. At that time, Kutch was not a part of Gujarat. Both Bombay Province and Kutch were independent states. It was the then Maharaja of Kutch who gave land for the Kandla port and Gandhidham township, at a token price of Re 1.
The farmers point out that Gandhidham was essentially developed by people who were not originally from Kutch, or what would become Gujarat. From 1948 to 1960 (the year Gujarat was carved out of Bombay Province), people were invited or migrated to Kutch. The farmers also point out in their affidavit that their forefathers moved to Kutch at the government’s invitation, into an area lacking even basic infrastructure, and were given land by the authorities for agricultural activities.
Spread over 45,652 sq km, Kutch accounts for 45 per cent of Gujarat’s territory and is the largest district of India. It has two patches of desert, a 405-km-long coastline and shares the international border with Pakistan. Traditionally, Kutchhis are known as traders but the main occupation of people is agriculture and cattle breeding. In the past few decades, agriculture has thrived in western Kutch, with the cultivation of cotton and groundnut as well as mango and date flourishing in Mandvi, Abdasa, Mundra, Nakhatrana, Bhuj and Abdasa.
Agricultural officers of the district unambiguously laud the efforts of Sikh farmers in developing agriculture in Kutch. “They have brought more land under irrigation and have done great work in cultivating cotton and high-quality groundnut,” says former district agriculture officer Anil Patel.
Of the 245 Sikh farmers of Punjab and Haryana origin who stand to lose their land, 175 or 71 per cent have their fields in Mandvi, Nakhtrana, Bhuj and Abdasa, the richest talukas in agriculture.
"The arrival of farmers from Punjab and Haryana brought lots of changes in terms of technology. The migrants introduced wheat to the region as well as threshers for harvesting. Cotton crop also saw a boom," says Kirti Khatri, a senior local journalist, though adding that the lack of water means locals too can’t do without innovative farming.
The Kutch Cotton Association (KCA), a body of cotton traders, ginners and processors, attributes the increase in acreage under cotton cultivation as well as overall production to the Sikh farmers. “Before they migrated to Kutch in 1967-68, the total production of cotton in the district was around one lakh bales (of 165 kg each). By 2012, this had touched five lakh bales annually,” KCA secretary Shirish Haria says, adding that this was due to their use of groundwater and the introduction of BT cotton in the late 1990s.
Another change happened after the 2001 earthquake, when a number of Sikh farmers from Punjab and Haryana who did not own land in the district started cultivating cotton by leasing land from local farmers.
The local leaders of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh also give Sikh farmers credit. “Tracts of land near border areas in Lakhpat and Abdasa talukas were barren. It is to the credit of farmers from Punjab and Haryana that cotton is the most popular cash crop in the district,” says the president of the outfit’s Kutch district unit, Shyamji Mayatra, adding that he fully backs the Sikh farmers’ demand to defreeze their lands.
Even today, a borewell or tubewell in a field is a clear indication in these parts that the land belongs to a Sikh farmer; locals prefer wells.
"They asked us why we were piercing the heart of the motherland, when we started digging borewells. Eventually, they realised that this was an effective way of irrigation," says Surendra Singh Bhullar, the de-facto leader of the protesting farmers.
Nights are normally breezy in Mandvi, a coastal town. On moonlight nights, the house of 70-year-old Bhullar is just a tiny speck on his 40-acre land nearby and its cotton crops. Bhullar is among the later migrants to Kutch, having arrived from Jalalabad, Punjab, a decade ago. He lives with his two sons and their families. A well-kept stable nearby houses five buffaloes, while a Sonalika tractor and a couple of cars stand outside.
Bristling at the order of the district collector, Bhullar says: “This is an insult. We are farmers and all we know is farming. Where will we go if we are forced to sell our land?”
He believes that eventually they will get to stay but worries “due to the politics that is going on”. “Modiji says we are outsiders. Aren’t we Hindustanis? How can you snatch the land we worship like our mother? Isn’t Modiji going to Punjab to seek votes? Will people there not vote for him because he is an outsider?” Bhullar says angrily.
Calling the move a conspiracy between the government and land sharks wanting to buy their plots, he asks: “Where was the government when we bought land and started farming here? If we were outsiders, why didn’t the government machinery object to the deals we did? We bought land via proper channels, with proper documentation, and we paid taxes.”
Rajinder Singh, 65, lives in Paiyagam in Abdasa taluka, where Sikhs make up all the migrant farmers. Singh sold the few acres of land he owned in his native Sangrur district in Punjab to buy about 30 acres of land here around 10 years ago. Land in Kutch is cheaper compared to Punjab, he points out. “I am not afraid of anything except that the government might force me to sell the land and go back to Punjab,” Singh says.
Harjeet Singh of Paiyagam village says their association with Kutch doesn’t date back to just 1965 but “centuries”. “Our forefathers used to tell us about the Lakhpat gurdwara (in Lakhpat taluka), and there were also trade links with Sindh through the port here.”
Harjeet’s situation is worse as the land he tills is in his father’s name, who passed away two years ago. “My brother too died last year. We want to transfer the land ownership but the authorities don’t listen to us,” he says.
The Sindhu river, now in Pakistan, earlier flowed through Lakhpat on way to the Arabian Sea. Once a major port city and a business hub connecting Sindhu and Kutch, Lakhpat — meaning “prosperous” — has few signs now of its bustling past. One of those is the Gurdwara Shri Lakhpath Sahibji, revered by the Sikhs, especially of the Udasi sect, who throng here around the year. Guru Nanak is believed to have halted at Lakhpat on his way to Mecca and Medina nearly five centuries ago, and this gurdwara has what are called his charan padukas (wooden slippers).
The earthquake of 2001 had damaged the gurdwara, and it was renovated later. Three years later, it was declared a protected site by the Archeological Survey of India and won the Asia Pacific Heritage Conservation Award for the year 2004 from UNESCO. Local as well as Sikhs settled abroad contribute funds for its upkeep.
"It is said that after Guru Nanakji came here, lots of people asked him to name the place. It was around 1495. He named the place Lakhpat, saying the place will have earnings of one lakh everyday. And that’s what happened. Lakhpat emerged as a port city," says Kashmir Singh, the gurdwara caretaker.
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“This is nothing short of a miracle,” Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal declared from the dais on the Ramlila Grounds here on Saturday after he took the oath of office as Delhi Chief Minister.
Indeed, the spectacular debut of his party and the even more spectacular response from the multitude who thronged the venue have put all other parties —national and regional — on notice for the coming Lok Sabha elections.
Exactly two years ago, the entire political class was under siege from a riveting anti-corruption movement emanating from the Ramlila Grounds. Again in the last week of December 2012, the government was paralysed by a sudden explosion of people’s wrath over the rape and murder of Nirbhaya in Delhi. On December 28, 2011, the UPA regime was under tremendous pressure to get the Lokpal and Lokayukta Bill, 2011, through. It got the Bill through the Lok Sabha, but chose to beat a retreat in the Rajya Sabha as it realised that the Opposition would succeed in pushing its amendments.
It was only appropriate that Mr. Kejriwal began his new journey into politics from the same Ramlila Grounds from where India Against Corruption (IAC) declared war on corruption and the corrupt, which to everyone’s dismay encompassed a vast majority of politicians. The open challenge he and his colleagues Prashant Bhushan and Kiran Bedi posed to “corrupt politicians” left the aam aadmi agog and Union Ministers seething. But obviously it struck a chord with the people.
Frustrated by unemployment and diminishing opportunities, ever-increasing prices of everyday commodities, the government’s tilt towards the private sector and MNCs in its rush to increase growth rate, total disconnect with people and, above all, corruption in high places and bribery in daily life made men, women and youth relate to IAC as never before. On the other hand, the coming-on-board of leaders of people’s movements, including Medha Patkar, Rajagopalan and Rajinder Singh was a statement the government failed to read.
As people continued to back the anti-corruption agitation on social media, and through walk-pasts at India Gate and assemblies at Jantar Mantar, for the first time in April 2011, the Centre conceded the demand for a law against corruption with the participation of the lead agitators. Some say the government yielded ground, keeping in mind the public protests at Tehrir Square in Cairo in January 2011 for a change in leadership. Whatever the reason, a joint drafting committee was set up with the then Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, as chairman and the former Law Minister, Shanti Bhushan, as co-chair. The talks broke down as the government decided to take its own version of the draft Bill to the Cabinet.
IAC returned in full steam in August on the Ramlila Grounds with Anna Hazare, on a fast-unto-death, playing the Pied Piper. The government called a special session and gave three assurances to make Mr. Hazare give up the fast; but the Bill, opposed by several parties, was nowhere in sight. Somewhere along the way IAC energy got dissipated.
Then came the parting of ways between Mr. Hazare and Mr. Kejriwal, who announced the launch of the AAP on October 2, 2012. “We tried everything, and now we will enter politics to fight from within,” Mr. Kejriwal said. “Our paths may be different from now, but our goal is the same,” declared Mr. Hazare, who shuns electoral politics. Both believe in decentralisation of political power and finances.
From a handful of Team Kejriwal, the AAP burst on the Delhi election scene with a bang earlier this month. In a carefully developed strategy, Mr. Kejriwal decided to concentrate all his party’s energies in the national capital. Leading from the front, he took on none other than the three-time Chief Minister, Sheila Dikshit, and shocked everyone by winning the seat with a handsome margin. The party won 28 of the 70 seats.
Looking forward, Mr. Kejriwal has now given a call to all “honest bureaucrats” and politicians “stifled in their own party” to join the revolution for restoring power to people. Formation of mohalla samitis, which will have financial powers, is something that has electrified the aam aadmi. “He has changed the face of politics from caste- and religion-based to issue-based. Now, even we have a voice,” said a participant in the swearing-in.
"I hope you will join our gathering, and defy all the obstacles that are being placed in our way, so that we can save democracy," Ms Zia said in a video message shortly after police banned the rally scheduled for Sunday, a week before the elections.
The former premier posted the video message from her home in a Dhaka neighbourhood where she has been under unofficial house arrest since Wednesday, according to her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP).
Her statement came shortly after Dhaka police said they would not sanction any such protest, citing fears of violence and public safety.
"We have not given permission to the BNP rally as we have intelligence that sabotage may occur," police spokesman Monirul Islam told AFP.
"The programme will not be allowed because of public safety."
Ms Zia has previously said that she wants to lead the rally, saying it would be a way “to say ‘no’ to these farcical elections”.
The BNP and 20 other parties have announced they are boycotting the January 5 election, fearing the result will be rigged.
The parties have been demanding that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina stands down and allows a neutral caretaker government to oversee the polls as in previous contests, but she has refused to yield.
The credibility of the polls has been further undermined by the refusal of foreign countries and organisations to send observers, but Ms Hasina has insisted that they will go ahead regardless.
As a magistrate court upheld the closure of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) report probing the 2002 Gujarat riots, Chief Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday tweeted “Satyamev Jayate! Truth alone triumphs.”
"Truth by nature is self-evident. As soon as you remove the cobwebs of ignorance that surround it, it shines clear," Modi said, borrowing the words of Mahatma Gandhi.
In a major relief for the Gujarat chief minister, a metropolitan court in Ahmedabad rejected Zakia Jafri’s petition against Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi in connection with a 2002 communal riots case.
Metropolitan Magistrate B J Ganatra while pronouncing the order in open court told Zakia’s counsel Mihir Desai that her petition has been rejected and they have the liberty to approach a higher court.
74-year-old Zakia, who was present at the court, broke down after the verdict was out and said she will appeal against it in the higher court in a month.
Zakia Jafri, whose husband and former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri was among 69 people killed in the Gulbarg Society massacre said she is saddened by the court order but not disheartened.
After SIT’s clean chit to the Gujarat CM, IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt said justice has not been done in this case, SIT tried to save Modi.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hailed the Ahmedabad court verdict, saying truth has prevailed.
The petition challenging the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team’s closure report, was filed by Zakia Jafri, the widow of slain former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri who was among the 69 people killed in the Gulbarg Society massacre on February 28, 2002 during the riots in the wake of the Godhra train incident.
In her petition, she had alleged that the SIT had shielded the Gujarat Chief Minister and others by discarding the statements of police officers and other available evidence.
She further accused the SIT of having done incomplete and frivolous investigations and playing the role of a court by adjudging the truth about the available evidence.